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Melatonin-laced cakes raising safety questions

Medical experts warn that these new foods designed for relaxation are not FDA-approved.
Published May 16, 2011

New York Times

Remember melatonin? In the 1990s, this over-the-counter dietary supplement was all the rage among frequent fliers, promoted as the miracle cure for jet lag. Now it is back in vogue, this time as a prominent ingredient in at least a half-dozen baked goods that flagrantly mimic the soothing effects of hash brownies - and do so legally. At least for now.

With names such as Lazy Cakes, Kush Cakes and Lulla Pies, these products are sold online and at such stores as 7-Eleven, Walgreens and smoke shops.

Although the Food and Drug Administration has not approved melatonin as a food additive or deemed it safe, the dessert makers are marketing their products as a harmless way to promote relaxation. And the snacks are increasingly being endorsed by fans on Facebook and Twitter as an antidote to stress and sleep deprivation.

Gabby Bevel, 22, a writer from Norman, Okla., and an insomniac who took Ambien and Lunesta in high school, said in an interview that she slept 13 hours after eating one Lazy Cakes snack recently. "I don't like the idea of needing something unnatural to help me with anything," she said. "Really, I think part of the appeal is it does come in a brownie."

Dr. Charles Czeisler, the chief of the division of sleep medicine at Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital, said, "It's making it much more difficult for the consumer to recognize that they are taking a drug." But Dr. Alfred J. Lewy, a professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University who has studied melatonin, a neurohormone, estimated that only a third of the population is susceptible to its effects in a supplement.

Some medical professionals are concerned that the chocolate taste might encourage indiscriminate gobbling.

"It's a colossally bad idea to put melatonin in food," Czeisler said. "It should not be permitted by the FDA."

Technically, it is not. Stephanie Yao, a spokeswoman at the FDA, wrote in an e-mail that any item that uses melatonin "as an additive may be subject to regulatory action."

Lewy dismissed the idea that harm might lurk in a melatonin-laced brownie. That said, he would not advise eating Lazy Cakes, partly because he was not sure that their other purportedly sleep-inducing ingredients such as valerian root work and partly because food delays the absorption of melatonin.

Also, Lewy said, "I don't need the calories."